ANKARA: Turkey’s migration management policy has become a hot topic in recent days, with members of the public calling for tougher security measures against irregular entries.
The growing hostility towards refugees has not only been triggered by a deterioration of the economic situation in Turkey, but also following a series of recent incidents.
Memories are still fresh after protests in Ankara last August against Syrian-owned homes and workplaces following reports that a Syrian refugee stabbed two Turkish men during a fight.
Amid widespread criticism from opposition parties who want the refugees expelled, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that Syrian refugees would voluntarily return to their country once peace is established in Syria.
According to Professor Murat Erdogan of Ankara University, 85% of Turks want Syrians to be repatriated or isolated in camps or safe areas.
There is also a debate in Turkey over whether to allow Syrian refugees to return if they can briefly visit their home country during the upcoming Eid al-Fitr holiday.
The Turkish government is currently working on a plan to restrict crossings during Ramadan, discouraging many Syrians from leaving for fear of not being allowed to return to Turkey.
“Irregular migration is an unnamed invasion,” said Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahceli, a coalition partner in the ruling government.
The topic, which has gained momentum after the recent arrival of around 60,000 Ukrainian refugees in Turkey, has been promoted by anti-immigrant parties, such as the Zafer party, who have said they will deport all refugees in their country of origin after the 2023 elections.
“Turkey is indeed bound by the international law of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a place where they would be in danger, and this principle is also protected by national laws, including the temporary protection offered to Syrians. Begum Basdas, a researcher at the Center for Fundamental Rights at the Hertie School in Berlin, told Arab News.
Turkey hosts around 3.7 million Syrians. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu recently announced that some 500,000 people have returned to safe areas created in northern Syria after Turkey’s cross-border operations, and more than 19,000 Syrians have been deported since 2016 for breaking the law.
“Treating migrants as bargaining chips by states is not new, but what is worrying today is that the public is also in the ‘game’. We must recognize that Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, and that is a strength, not a burden,” Basdas said.
Turkey has granted citizenship to 192,000 Syrians so far, but the opposition has also called for more security checks when granting citizenship, as it claims some criminals are using it to cross borders. Turkey.
Ahead of the upcoming elections in 2023, the main opposition Republican People’s Party has pledged to return Syrian migrants to their country and reconcile with the Assad regime to facilitate the return of Syrian nationals.
Friedrich Puttmann, a researcher at the Istanbul Policy Center, said the reasons why most Turks today reject Syrian refugees are diverse, including economic, social and political reasons.
“Economically, many Turks see Syrians as the cause of rising rents and unemployment among Turkish citizens. Indeed, a third of Turkey’s economy is informal and most Syrians also work informally, but mostly for lower wages than Turks. For many Turks, this is the reason why they can no longer find work,” he told Arab News.
“Furthermore, many Turks tend to believe that the Turkish state privileges Syrians by not levying taxes on their entrepreneurial activity, giving them privileged access to health care and education, and paying social benefits that are not available to Turks. Most Turks are unaware that the latter two are in fact mostly funded by the EU. However, the apparent injustice this creates in the eyes of Turkish citizens disturbs many,” he added.
According to Puttmann, Turkish attitudes towards Syrian refugees also have a political dimension, which reflects Turkey’s internal struggles over national identity.
“On the surface, many secular Turks reject Syrians for being too religiously conservative, while many religiously conservative Turks reject Syrians for not behaving like ‘true Muslims’. Beneath the surface, both critiques are expressions of how different Turks would like to see their country and are therefore more directed at Turkish society in general than at Syrian refugees in particular,” he said.
Puttmann also thinks that with the pervasiveness of nationalism, most Turks come together in fear that Syrians will not adapt to Turkish society and will one day outnumber them.
But the voluntary return of Syrian refugees to their homeland remains unlikely, as current conditions in Syria still do not allow them to rebuild a life.
“Many Syrians have lost everything they had, Assad fears, and their children may have grown up more in Turkey than in Syria now. This means that no matter how many Syrians eventually return to Syria, a number will most likely stay in Turkey forever,” Puttmann said.
According to experts, the Turkish authorities should work on durable solutions, such as resettlement in third countries, to share responsibility with the international community.
For Basdas, it is not possible “to open the doors of Europe to refugees” or “to send them back to Syria in buses”.
She said: “Such election promises do not appease anyone, but further fuel anti-refugee sentiments and racism in Turkey and set the public on the path to pogroms and violence. There is no going back from there.
Puttmann agrees and said there is a need for a proactive national integration strategy to fully integrate Syrians into local society.
“First of all, Turkish society should formulate what it expects from the integration of Syrian refugees, also taking into account the rights of refugees and their own expectations.
“Secondly, Turkey should come up with a plan to get there.
“Thirdly, the EU should support this process with expertise and financial assistance, because solving the refugee problem in Turkey is also in the EU’s vital interest.”